On Monday the 9th of January gamers and industry members around the world were faced with the shocking news that American born game developer Amir Mirza Hekmati had been found guilty of espionage and sentenced to death in Iran. The coverage that has unfolded has been extensive and varied in its questioning of the validity and possible motivations behind the sentence. In this two part series, we will be looking into what we know of the facts so far, and go on to examine the issues raised.
In August of 2010, Amir was visiting his grandparents in Iran when he was suddenly detained, the charges relating specifically to work he had done for the company Kuma Games in 2009. On December 19th, the Tehran Times ran an article featuring excerpts of his alleged confession, which contained numerous statements ranging from working with Kuma and the CIA to manipulate public opinion through free games, to stating his family trip was nothing more than a cover for further infiltration.
Correspondents have dug into the work history of Amir and of Kuma, and did discover some intriguing facts. According to governmental records available online, Kuma received funding to develop language and retention programs for the State Department, which Amir worked on. Although Kuma Games CEO Keith Halper has neither confirmed nor denied Amir working for his company, the records clearly show the contract being awarded to both Halper and Amir as the Principal Investigators.
The report also established a prior relationship with the US Military, stating that Kuma holds multiple training projects for the USA Combined Arms Support Command (CASCOM).
It should be noted Kuma has long been a source of controversy regarding its portrayal of Iran. In an interview with Gamasutra in 2007, Halper revealed that the company had faced the strongest media and player reaction to its "Assault on Iran game", which supposedly virtualises a realistic simulation, guided by military experts, into what form incursions into Iran by the US military might possibly take. He went on to talk about specifically the mixed reaction from people in Iran, and the fact they have had thousands of downloads from the region itself.
These facts do not reveal anything except Kuma Games being inclined towards releasing low budget, politically charged and sensationalist shooters, including titles that feature killing Osama Bin Laden or leading attacks on Moammar Gadhafi as primary reasons to play. The evidence of a game company working with the US military is not indicative of espionage at all, with the rising trend towards training in what are termed 'serious games', in both the military and public sectors worldwide.
What we do know is that the US Military and the State Department have outright denied the charges, and directed all efforts be made by the Swiss Embassy in the area to secure his release. It is also clear that there has been no solid evidence presented by Iranian authorities to prove Amir's culpability, instead expecting the world to take a confession as truth, from a country renowned for torture.
We also see the absolute horror in the statements made by his family and friends on their website, claiming his right as an American citizen to come home, and the exploitation of his life for political gain.
The simple reality is that without solid evidence, which if it existed would have been paraded proudly by the Iranian authorities, this sentence is a travesty that uses the life of a man to engender a political confrontation of Iran's stance against perceived U.S ideology, at the expense of a person's life whose only crime was to help develop free virtual games of war.
Image courtesy of TheFreeAmir website.